It’s aerial week in Toronto:
- Robert Lepage’s pair of brief operas (Bluebeard’s Castle / Erwartung) for the Canadian Opera Company open May 6th at the Four Seasons Centre, including moments when you can’t tell which way is up
- Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium comes back to Canadian Stage May 1st (last seen here just over a year ago), much of it a test of agility as the set rotates while the protagonist attempts to stay right-side-up
- And meanwhile, Cavalia continue their mix of horses, acrobats & aerial display in their current show Odysseo on until at least May 24th (review).
Once upon a time someone wrote a song about someone who “flies through the air with the greatest of ease, the daring young man on the flying…” You know which song I mean because of course you finished the sentence in your head.
But the word “circus” is limiting. None of these shows is really in a ring (the meaning of the word “circus” after all), even if Odysseo does briefly make horse and rider race around inside the confining circle of the enclosed ring space. The “c” word is dated. Gone are the days of entertainments comprised of traveling performers who can barely make a living. No, shows such as Odysseo—currently playing to rapturous crowds under the big white tent on the waterfront in Toronto –or influential precursors such as Cirque du Soleil demonstrate that there’s a lot of money to be made in daring aerial performances.
I’m less interested in the financial questions than I am in the way this plays out in the larger world. What may have started out as a flavour of the month, a case of keeping up with the Jones’s (or Lepages), shows signs of becoming a normal part of opera and theatre. Sometimes such daring displays are necessary, as in a show such as the Broadway Spiderman where the lead character is required to be a daredevil.
But I know I’m seeing these skills deployed elsewhere, and would list more examples if I could think of them. I recall in the COC Love from Afar we saw floating performers to complement the spiritual element of the story.
In the COC’s production of Semele, recently revived at Brooklyn Academy of Music, at one point Jane Archibald as the heroine has to fly on a wire.
The current Houston Opera production of Die Walküre running until the weekend, puts their Valkyries in the air using machines.
And lest we forget the baroque side of things, Opera Atelier usually have an airborne god or goddess every season: for instance in last month’s Orpheus and Eurydice. Everything old is new again?
Lepage’s approach seems to be a big part in the shift, making this part of a new normal. He challenges his singers, expecting them to be aerialists.
- In Das Rheingold he dangles the Rhinemaidens above the stage for 20 minutes, creating a magical effect.
- Later in the same opera, Loge the trickster god walks backwards up a wall. And at the end of the opera, the gods enter Valhalla, at least with the help of body doubles climbing at a scary angle. The substitution is similar to the one Lepage makes with Brunnhilde at the end of Die Walküre
- Lepage’s next operatic venture –in Quebec and also at the Met– was Ades Tempest, again taking us into the air.
- Lepage’s first opera at the Met wasn’t really an opera, but Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust, a work that’s wide open to adventurous mise-en-scène. There’s probably more aerial work in this production than any other. My favourite such moment –among many—is the chorus of soldiers & students, when we’re told of the siege of girls’ hearts. The soldiers climb and then die, dangling from the wires, but fresh waves keep attacking and dying; is this a display of futility or simply normal life as it was lived in the time? As usual Lepage drills down into the literal meaning of the text, almost too literal.
Last night I was reminded of those dangling soldiers, watching Odysseo. I tweeted
They resemble angels until the moment it looks as though they might fall. Mortal angels? I guess not. #Odysseo
There is a moment near the end of their routine when the aerialists dangle in a way to remind us that they could indeed fall, as if to say they are mortal after all, very much like Lepage’s soldiers. Curiously, the photo that was downloaded to media is titled “Les Anges”, suggesting that the overtones of something spiritual aren’t just in my mind.
The influences don’t seem to work in the usual way, as this isn’t Cirque influencing Cavalia –two competing spectacles of acrobatic skill. No. I have to think that it’s Robert Lepage possibly influenced by his Quebecois compatriots, possibly himself influencing them. This part of Odysseo is a very abstract kind of theatre that’s far more ambitious than just “he flies through the air with the greatest of ease”.
Because the days of the old-time circus –the place where animals are abused, where survival is marginal–are over and thank goodness. At the very least Cavalia is a kind of “Circus 2.0”, humane, artistic, and seeking to be profound. The animals are treated with dignity, the performances an enactment of love.
Don’t be surprised if aerial performance is a regular part of the expressive vocabulary of theatre.